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August 2000

Indonesian troops slaughter Christians

By Michael Sheridan, Manado, Indonesia for The Times (London).
Sunday, August 13, 2000.

THE MARTYRDOM of the village of Duma began with the gathering of spectral figures in white shrouds chanting about holy war and death. By the time it ended, 208 Christian villagers taking refuge in a church had been slaughtered by Muslims who call themselves the Laskar Jihad, or holy warriors.

The most sinister aspect of this mass murder in the Spice Islands of Indonesia comes from the consistent testimony of the survivors who escaped in boats and now fill a hospital in Manado, where most of the population is Christian, on the island of Sulawesi. They say soldiers of the 511th and 512th battalions of the Indonesian army, who were supposed to keep the peace, put on the ghoulish robes of the jihadis, wrapped the barrels of their weapons in white cloth and joined in the massacre.

The Sunday Times has interviewed numerous survivors of the massacre, which took place on June 19. Their statements bear out detailed allegations compiled by Alexander Mellerse, a reporter in Manado.

No police officer or state attorney has bothered to collect evidence from the victims. Yet the butchery at Duma signifies a campaign of extremist Islamic violence that is tearing at the fabric of Indonesia.

Both Muslims and Christians have committed atrocities during violence in the great arc of islands across the north of the archipelago. But the Duma murders demonstrate the difference between flare-ups of old vendettas and a new campaign by Muslim extremists imported to kill and expel Christians from the Spice Islands.

The plan is tacitly endorsed by Muslim politicians in Jakarta, the capital, who have just failed to impose shariah law on Indonesia's 210 million people. There is evidence of arms, cash and tough young militants flowing to join the fray from the Abu Sayyaf terrorists in the Philippines, whose members have reaped millions of pounds from taking foreign hostages.

In turn, the Abu Sayyaf group has well-established connections with Osama Bin Laden, the Saudi terror suspect, and fundamentalist groups based in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Their agenda is simple: destruction of Indonesia’s traditions of religious tolerance through chaos and terror.

The implications for western trade and strategy are now causing serious concern to governments from Canberra to Washington and Tokyo. Such hard politics would have seemed as remote as the moon to the simple folk of Duma, pursuing their farming and worship in their isolated corner of the island of Halmahera. “There was never any trouble with our neighbours,” said one village headman, Johannes Bahang, 44, “until the ‘white group’ came to the island.”

The “white group” were the Laskar Jihad, young men brought in by ship from Aceh and Java in their trademark robes of war.

Playing on local animosities, they soon set village against village. “On June 18 we were warned by the army that the village would be attacked the next day,” said Bahang. “We asked for protection but got none.”

The villagers, who belonged to a number of evangelical Christian sects, often gathered for safety at the Nita church. It was a big building that could hold 1,000 and there was a 7 foot perimeter wall which made them feel safe. Night after night, the Christians had slept behind the wall while men kept watch.

But on the morning of the 19th their luck ran out. Samuel Kukus, 42, was one of the village leaders who had armed themselves with old or home-made weapons. “We had resisted two of their attacks but this time they came back in much greater numbers. There were soldiers who had joined them, and they all had better guns. We had no alternative but to surrender, so the village chief and I walked out with a white flag.”

The jihadis refused to accept their surrender. One account says that one of the surrender party was cut down with a sword. Within minutes, atrocious violence erupted.

“They threw bombs over the wall and I started to run away from the church,” said Alji Nusa, 24. “Then came a second wave of bombs which struck me with shrapnel and I fainted. Before I ran, I looked around and saw that nobody was left alive. There were people whose arms had been cut off, people who had been slashed.” Among the dead was her husband, Lukius, 26. “I saw who did it,” she said. “Some were in the white jihad clothes and others were in camouflage uniforms.”

Sutarsi Selong, 29, said she was confronted by a soldier who screamed at her to shout "Allah akbar" (“God is great”). When she failed to do so, he put his gun in her mouth and pulled the trigger, blowing away her left cheek. Then he pulled out a bayonet and slashed from the bridge of her nose down through her lips.

Bathsheba Sumtaki, 32, saw her daughter Moisari, 8, collapse from three wounds in her right leg. She picked up the child and ran. “She still needs an operation to get out bits of the bomb,” the mother said. The child is one of 290 people said to have been injured.

The survivors were saved, they said, by the arrival of a unit of Indonesian air force troops. They did not shoot but there was a standoff with the jihadis that stopped the killing. It took those interviewed more than two weeks to struggle to the coast and make it in small boats to Manado.

Megawati Sukarnoputri, the vice-president, visited the survivors in Manado hospital. They booed and shouted at her to do something. “It’s not my responsibility,” she told them.

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